“I love you, grandma, I really do,” I said.
“I always know, and I love you, too,” she answered.
"Love" describes such a powerful and wonderful emotion, it's no surprise how often we use it. The word “love” has become so pervasive that the deep intensity of its emotional resonance has somehow been watered down. In American films, it’s a teenage boy’s grudging response to his doting mother; at school, it is a habitual farewell exchanged between friends… In my Chinese home, however, it's never uttered, and neither is it in other Chinese families.
Somehow, many people in China find it hard to speak this word, even when speaking face-to-face with the dearest members of their families. Knowing that emotions such as love make us vulnerable, we prefer to avoid the topic altogether in case we become overly emotional. We know that becoming overly emotional might lead to awkwardness, and this feeling of awkwardness when it comes to expressing love has been passed on from one generation to the next. These days, a statement like, “I love you, mum and dad” made by a Chinese child to his or her parents would likely be met with awkward blinks, suspicion, and “How much money do you need?”
For a time, I struggled to understand if love can still retain its roots in its passion and deep adoration when it is not even uttered from our mouths. Do Chinese people simply love less than Americans do? It wasn’t until my grandmother’s death that I finally realized the true meaning of the unuttered love that exists in Chinese families and within Chinese culture.
It was two years ago.
On the way to my grandmother’s hospital, I clutched a pink envelope tightly in my hands. Inside was her birthday present – a letter that expressed all my praise and love for her along with my appreciation for the many years of beautiful memories that we shared. I couldn’t help envisioning her happiness upon receiving this exquisite present that I’d been preparing for months.
Things didn’t go as I had planned, however; it was too late.
As the window welcomed the passage of moonlight, the ward was filled with shadows. Watching my grandmother lying unconscious on the sickbed as my family and I waited for her body to shut down was excruciatingly painful. If agony has any appearance, it would be this. Her final breath formed a discordant rhythm against the steady beat of the hospital equipment and the unsympathetic tapping hands of the clock. The pink envelope was stained with tears before it was ever opened. Standing at her bedside, I leaned forward and whispered the first “I love you, grandma” that I had ever said to her. As I spoke to them, the ineffable power of these words gave me an instant shiver.
Rankling guilt haunted me relentlessly for weeks after her passing. My warm and sweet confessions of “I love you” and the love letter I had written to her seemed so anticlimactic when met with the coldness of my grandmother’s final surroundings — the blank and dark room, the impassive doctors, and the empty silence. We had had fifteen years to express our feelings for each other, but neither of us ever did. The word “love” rolls so easily off my tongue when bantering with friends. How come it disappears from my vocabulary when I am speaking directly to the dearest members of my family?
As I look back on 15 years growing up in my Chinese family, I don’t feel a gaping hole where love should be. I see my grandmother with her fluff of white hair, guiding my clumsy fingers as they grip my first calligraphy brush, helping me to dab just enough ink onto its thick bristles. She smiles as I slowly smooth the pigment over the tan parchment to form wobbly characters.
I see grandma waiting in the 100-degree heat every day to pick me up from school, just to drive home along traffic-congested roads. I see her staying home from work to care for me when I caught a cold and feeling no resentment when she contracted it herself. I picture that arcane emotion imprinted in tacit smiles and hidden tears, shining from her chest with unabashed pride. Within the realm of my memories, I finally discovered a truth that lessened my crushing regret at the loss of my grandmother.
Our unuttered Chinese love, or ai, as it’s called in Mandarin, is seldom expressed verbally, but the emotion isn’t any more absent or less profound. My grandmother and I shared an implicit love that neither of us chose to express verbally. Love is such a quiet emotion that in time it becomes part of the air we breathe in; you might not be aware of its presence, but that never means it’s not there. It doesn’t have to be a promise at the altar, a soft kiss of water on parched lips, or the tender caress on the cheekbones… Simply put, love doesn’t have to be expressed with extravagant words and gestures. Instead, it can simply be a home-like feeling and sense of belonging that’s gradually absorbed into our hearts through caring about each other.
Although Chinese culture seems to impose a certain cultural and linguistic “love” barrier, I’ve learned that the habit of not saying this word out loud doesn’t have to be limiting. By living together as a family and sharing experiences, we feel the sensation of true devotion and compassion. If that’s not worth calling love, then I don’t know what is.
I believe I shared with my grandmother an implicit love that neither of us chose to address verbally, I can finally loosen my selfish grip on her past and allow her to ascend into her future…
“I love you grandma, I really do.” The words I said to her on her sickbed keep ringing around in my head. In the end, I realize she never actually responded, but I know she heard them, and responded in her heart,
“I always know, and I love you, too.”
Zhang Yuer studies at the Wuxi Dipont School of Arts and Science. She is passionate about social-cognitive development in adolescence. She is the founder of a poverty relief program and has done three years of volunteer teaching. Public speaking is also a great interest of hers.
(Header image and icons: Shijue and nPine/VCG)